EXPLORETY

The pandemics, epidemics and disasters that wiped out entire species

The pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, Covid-19, has demonstrated that our interconnected, globalized world can be a danger to itself. And while it is the first time a pandemic has reached such a grand scale in the human world, the animal world has seen some harrowing events – including epidemics and pandemics – that have left extinct and endangered species in their wake.

Take the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki), a toad that is thought to be extinct in the wild as of 2007 (it still exists in captivity). The reason is Chytrid, a fungus responsible for wiping out populations of amphibians in various parts of the world by causing an infectious disease and deadly disease called chytridiomycosis. Although scientists think that the fungus has existed for thousands of years, the evolution of a new strain is attributed to globalization, which has allowed chytridiomycosis to become a pandemic, spread to new parts of the world and become the primary reason for the extinction of the golden frog.

An epidemic caused by another fungus has wiped out millions of bats in the US since 2006. Although Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the fungus that causes the deadly white nose syndrome, has been found in European bats, it doesn’t seem to cause the same mass mortality as in the bats in the US. Scientists think that the fungus has mutated, and the version that was transported to the US is a more virulent one. This disease is not thought to be dangerous for humans.

Pathogens are not solely to blame for the destruction of entire species of animals: hunting has been the cause for extinction as well. The famous dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus), a three-foot-tall bird that resembles a large pigeon, once inhabited the island of Mauritius. It is assumed that the dodo became flightless because of the island’s ecosystem, which has lots of available food and few predators. That changed when Dutch settlers came in the 16th century. The bird was hunted, its habitat destroyed, and the new species introduced by the settlers such as dogs, cats and rats contributed to its extinction.

Similarly, New Zealand’s moa, nine species of giant flightless birds that resemble emus and ostriches, that once stood tall 12 feet and weighed some 500 pounds, have disappeared with the arrival of the Polynesians in New Zealand. The settlers changed the natural balance for the moa, whose only enemy had been the Haast’s eagle. They were overhunted by the settlers and eventually died out, around 1300-1400.

The most recent threats – the coronavirus, SARS, Ebola and Zika began with diseases in animals that transferred to people. That is yet another reason to engage in responsible travel, respecting and preserving the wildlife without encroaching upon it or risking disease transfer from animals to humans.

Did you know?

  • The golden toad is the national symbol of Panama.

  • We don’t actually know what the dodo – popularized by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – looked like: the information we have now is based on drawings and accounts from the 17th century.

  • The name Portuguese sailors initially gave to Mauritius – Cerne (Swan) Island – may have been a reference to the dodos.

  • Harvard University researchers have been able to reconstruct the genome of the moa.

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